Though well made and frequently exciting, Murphy's Law (2001-present) is a despairing, depressing undercover cop show. It aims for a fashionable nihilism along the lines of David Fincher's films, and goes so overboard with this that at times its London setting more closely resembles the post-apocalyptic world of Day of the Triffids. While some of Britain's all-time best police dramas have been extraordinarily bleak, Prime Suspect and Cracker to name two, those shows offered much humanistic insight into the psychology of victims, suspects, and investigators and explored real-world social problems. But Murphy's Law wears its bleakness like a kind of wardrobe, a stylistic decision more than an aesthetic one. There's little depth in its characterizations, including its flippant title cop, and its stories are fairly shallow reworkings of overly familiar thriller plots. Nevertheless, I found a couple shows in Murphy's Law - Series 2 unusually good.
Reportedly these episodes, typically with running times of 50-51 minutes, are edited from their 60-minute original broadcast versions, so be warned.
The program is based on a book by novelist Colin Bateman, who wrote it specifically with fellow Irishman James Nesbitt in mind after the latter's award-winning role on Cold Feet, an ITV comedy-drama. Nesbitt's Tommy Murphy is a Mike Hammer-like iconoclast, but with James Bond's darkly sardonic sense of humor. Nesbitt's very good at expressing both sides of this personality; he's obviously a fine, charismatic actor who in fact would have made a good 007 had Daniel Craig not come along (and Nesbitt would have been the series' second Irishman after Pierce Brosnan).
I didn't catch the first series of shows, but apparently its grim tone was established early on, when Murphy had to choose between the life of his daughter and saving several hundred men in a local barracks. In the end, he finds that his daughter's throat has been slit and that his wife was forced to watch the murder. (Now there's an evening's entertainment!)
The fun continues with series two; within the first few minutes Murphy's current partner is murdered by a serial killer whose grisly mutilations of homeless women are reminiscent of Jack the Ripper. This and later episodes highlight such cheery topics as homeless drug abusers and dealers; dirty, murdering cops; the negligent death of a child through chemical poisoning and its cover-up by industrialists; and a tale involving dishonest nuns and murderous schoolboys. Almost appropriately, the series wraps up with a story about murdered murderers.
The look of Murphy's Law reflects its despairing scripts. London has never look less inviting. Everything is rain-soaked and grimy. Even in the middle of the day, the sky is dark and overcast. Scripts frequently take Murphy to abandoned warehouses, experimental drug laboratories, and dark alleys, giving the show the look of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi series.
Indeed, Murphy's Law is so grim that it sometimes becomes unbelievable or simply unnecessarily cruel. The identity of the killer in the series opener, "Jack's Back," is an admitted surprise but not logical for several obvious reasons. "Convent," which has Murphy donning a priest's robes to go undercover at a convent, abruptly ends with a murder that, while dramatically logical, is almost unbearably nasty, a flourish at the expense of a character who might just as well have survived.
And yet Murphy's Law undeniably is a well-crafted program. "Ringers," for instance, an episode about an exotic car-smuggling ring, is colorful and tense, with several good guest performances and a sustained movie-like scale. "Alice," one of the few episodes to end at least somewhat happily, falls back on obvious X-Files-type mysterious corporate baddies, but the basic story is strong and generates a lot of tension.
Video & Audio
Murphy's Law - Series 2 presents six episodes in 16:9 enhanced widescreen over two single-sided discs. As stated above, reportedly these 51-minute shows are cut from their 60-minute original versions, apparently for release abroad. Naturally, there seems no reason why the complete shows shouldn't have been released, and which obviously would have been preferable. What's there looks just fine though, this despite the visual leanings toward dark, under-lit locales and interiors. The Dolby Digital stereo is good, up to 2004 standards, when these shows were produced.
Amusingly, episodes default to the optional English subtitles, apparently with the assumption by Acorn Media that more viewers than not will need them to understand Nesbitt's strong but hardly impenetrable accent.
The only supplement is a rather thin James Nesbitt text bio, the kind of thing where one could easily find lots more on the Internet.
I was impressed and repelled by Murphy's Law in about equal measure. It's well done almost across the board save for its teleplays, which are relentlessly dark and depressing, fashionable but not enlightening. Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.